The Indian branch of PEN International, the PEN All-India Centre, was founded in Bombay by Sophia Wadia in 1934. The Center’s first president was Rabindranath Tagore and its vice-presidents included Sarojini Naidu and S. Radhakrishnan. The Center was originally run from Sophia Wadia’s and her husband, Indian Theosophist B. P. Wadia’s, home before being re-located to Theosophy Hall (pictured) in 1957.
Throughout its long life, the Centre concentrated on creating an idea of « Indian literature » as well as a vibrant intellectual community rather than taking a direct part in political events – while also pledging its commitment to political, cultural and moral freedom.
Committed to promoting unity and understanding within and across India, between writers of different languages, and between India and the rest of the world, its aims were expounded in the first issue of The Indian PEN (March 1934): the Centre was to act as a link between all members of the country and represent Indian writers abroad; chronicle activities of its members and help them become aware of literary achievements in all Indian languages; bring to its readers useful literary news from the world.
From 1945 onwards the Center organized the All-India Writers’ Conferences destined to be, in Sophia Wadia’s words, a “regular forum where Indian Writers Meet”. The Center also published a series of books in English on India’s regional literatures, which included a literary history of the literature under study, and an anthology of texts. This represented the Center’s commitment to an integrated view of Indian literature.
As well as offering a supportive community of writers based in Bombay, but with a significant membership across India, the PEN All-India centre also offered support for writers and from 1934 onwards it published an important journal, The Indian PEN. Following Sophia Wadia’s death in 1986, Nissim Ezekiel took over as editor of The Indian PEN and de facto leader of the Center, promoting literature through public events, readings, conferences as well as informal gatherings in his office at Theosophy Hall.
In the first issue of the short-lived PENumbra magazine – a follow-up of The Indian PEN which ceased publication in the 1990s – the poet Ranjit Hoskote and current secretary of the PEN All-India Centre writes: “We have taken, as our mandate, the celebration of texts as well as their sustaining contexts. We have committed ourselves again to defending cultural freedoms against their ubiquitous enemies” (2006: 2).
A PEN Delhi Center has been founded in 2013, and a South India PEN Center is currently being set up in Bangalore.
For more on the research project, see here: PEN All-India Archives & Research Project